I’m writing this six hours before the World Champion Cheese is named. That’s because no matter who wins – whether it be a little-known cheesemaker from the Alps, an artisan cheesemaker from Wisconsin or a woman who’s making donkey cheese on a farm in Turkey – the winner of this year’s contest has already been determined. It’s us. The consumers. The cheese eaters.
Media interest in this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest is unreal. There are television cameras, documentary crews and print journalists from around the country camped out at Monona Terrace. I find myself looking around for Hollywood celebrities, given the amount of paparazzi that’s patrolling the place. And, I keep comparing today’s scene to 10 years ago, when the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association asked me to help organize the first-ever evening public event. I was thrilled when two local tv news crews showed up, 300 people bought tickets, and we sampled 30 cheeses. Tonight, we’re expecting more than a dozen tv crews, 800 attendees, and 30 volunteers will work with me all afternoon to cut up and sample 100 cheeses from 25 different countries. Why? Because all of you demanded it.
Since 2008, consumer interest in good cheese – whether it’s made in a big factory, little factory or on someone’s farm – has skyrocketed. I emphasize GOOD in that first sentence. Consumers want food that tastes good. In a country where half of us are overweight and the other half are on a perpetual diet (I fall into both of those camps), all of us are looking for cheese that awakens our taste buds and satisfies our stomachs without eating half a pound of it with a box of crackers. Today’s cheeses are doing that.
In the last 10 years, it’s been heart-warming to watch the camaraderie between cheesemakers, cheesemongers, cheese scientists and judges from across the country and the world bloom and grow at the World Championship Cheese Contest. My Facebook feed has lit up all week with photos like the one below, showing Kari Skibbie and Lisa Hall, two women who work for different companies in the Wisconsin cheese industry, and perhaps who only see each other only a few times a year, volunteering to slog cheese all day on the B Team:
Of course, winning the World Championship Cheese Contest is a BIG deal. Two years ago, Emmi Roth from Monroe, Wisconsin, took home the big trophy. It was the first time in decades Wisconsin had won the top prize.
So who will be the big cheese this year? For a preview of the cheeses in contention, you can peruse the list of first place winners on the contest’s official website. As I write this, every first-place cheese is being judged from scratch by nearly 60 accredited cheese experts from around the world. The top 20 cheeses, and finally the big winner, will be revealed at tonight’s sold-out shindig. No matter who comes out on top, we’re all winners. Good cheese is in our future.